Leaving a Denomination: Reflections of a Former Southern Baptist Part 2

As I stated in my previous blog post of the same title, the decision my wife and I made to join a church of another denomination after a lifetime of membership in churches affiliated with the SBC had little to do with any specific incident or action of the denominational leadership.  Church membership is an objective decision made by following the Holy Spirit.  I use the term “objective” because the basis for membership in any particular church is rooted in scripture, not personal preference.  The most specific instruction I can find which provides guidance for church membership is I Corinthians 12.  The Apostle Paul says that each member is a separate and necessary part of the body because they are uniquely gifted to serve the local church.

My wife and I were both raised in Southern Baptist churches and knew nothing else.  We grew up with Sunday School, training union and mission groups on Wednesday night, VBS in the summer, youth group and we both went to state convention related Baptist colleges.  We were married the semester after I started at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, so she went through that experience with me as well.  I’ve been on the payroll at both the North American Mission Board and Lifeway for various ministries over the past thirty years as well as several SBC churches.  There are many ways that denominational loyalty gets developed among Southern Baptists and my wife and I have experienced most of them, including the influence of family and culture.

I know many people make their church membership decisions based on a church’s denominational affiliation.  My home church, in Arizona well outside the boundaries of the deep South, attracted most of its members from among those who had moved to town from somewhere in the South.  The largest employer in the area was a military base twenty minutes away, so many of our church members were civilian employees or military personnel who were from a Southern state.  There was a Texas based natural gas company with a compressor station on the edge of town that provided another group of members, and an electrical contracting firm based in Jackson, Mississippi that brought in others.  The First Baptist church in town was not SBC and it didn’t take these folks very long to migrate up our way after visiting there once or twice.

I believe the passage I referenced earlier in 1 Corinthians is pretty definitive when it comes to church membership.  We live in a much different culture, but God still builds the body of Christ by gifting its members spiritually for service and ministry and fitting them together in local bodies of “called out ones,” the Church of Jesus Christ.  But I was taught, by Sunday School teachers, pastors, parents and professors, that I was given spiritual gifts and opportunities to learn in order to be a minister, whether vocational or volunteer and that I needed to discern where those gifts would be best used when making a decision about joining a church.  The influence of denominational loyalty has always been a powerful one as well, as it is for most people who grow up in an SBC congregation.  Having been on the payroll at both Lifeway and NAMB, and having earned a degree from Southwestern, I have a clear understanding of the power of denominational loyalty to the SBC.

But I do not see a Biblical basis for the divisions and lines that are drawn through the church as it has separated itself into denominations.  The emergence of denominationalism in Christianity was divisive, fracturing the unity of the church at a time when it was being pulled into secular politics and when it was coming out of a long period of persecution that had ravaged its membership and weakened its commitment.  The whole history of church schism, from the split between the partriarchal Eastern church and the development of the Papacy in the Western church to the Protestant Reformation is one of disunity, the influence of false doctrine, conflict that often erupted into war and not very much when it came to the Biblical functions of a local body of baptized believers in Christ, gathered together as his Church.

If you take Paul’s words about each member being gifted and fit together for service in the church as the basis for church membership, then the things that happen in the denomination your local church belongs to shouldn’t be a factor in whether or not you remain a member or leave.  It’s the local body that makes the difference.  When an opportunity to serve as administrator in an institution belonging to a different denomination came along and my wife and I determined, through prayerful consideration, that I was a good fit for the job, we accepted and moved to a part of the country where there are few SBC congregations.  We were not required to join the church with which the school where I was administrator was affiliated, and we looked for an SBC church first if for no other reason than out of habit.  But it became clear that our gifts and ministry service were going to fit with a small church of a different denomination.  It was, we discovered, not all that different from any other church where we had been members.

There are some things that have happened in the SBC in recent years that I have found disappointing.  My years at Southwestern were, for me, a personal spiritual revival.  Some of the closest lifetime friendships I made happened while a student there and the education and training I got there were exactly what I expected from a seminary education.  It grieves me to see what has happened there, the result of using a seminary presidency as a reward for being a leader in a denominational political fight instead of hiring someone with appropriate background and experience in theological higher education.  I just hope and pray that the damage can be repaired and the seminary continue to operate.

Having been extensively involved in several of NAMB’s missions programs, including several stints on the paid staff, I am also grieved by what has happened there.  NAMB became a crossroads for the influences seeking power within the denomination and, like Southwestern, administrative positions were given as rewards for loyalty rather than based on the expertise of the administrator.  Money, spent on extravagances that have been well documented, evaporated.  What should be one of Southern Baptists’ most effective cooperative ministries linking state conventions to evangelism and church planting efforts is cash-strapped and struggling, laying off personnel and explaining inflated numbers on reports.

Yes, I know there are ways for Southern Baptists to have a voice in convention decisions but that’s much more of a cliché than a reality.  I’ve been a registered messenger at many conventions over the past 25 years.  Most of the decisions are made in trustee meetings and executive board meetings and then a campaign is conducted to drive messenger votes toward the desired outcome that has been determined in advance.  I’ve observed the tactics that the elected officers and committee on order of business use to deflect questions on subjects they don’t want to discuss and to manipulate votes to go the way those who influence and run the convention want it to go.  I’ve had a motion made in a business session “referred” to the appropriate committee with the expectation that they would answer the question in the motion and get back to either me, or report on it in their next meeting.  Didn’t happen.  When I called to ask when I should expect a response, the committee chairman didn’t remember the motion and could not find it anywhere in the business that had been referred to the committee.   I had to send them a copy of the convention minutes (getting those before the annual is printed is an expedition that builds character and develops patience) and was then told, “Oh, well, we wouldn’t have done anything with it anyway.”  That’s why I stopped wasting my money on hotels and travel to attend the convention.  I suspect that’s probably why thousands of others have stopped as well.



Two Kinds of Baptists Meeting in Birmingham This Summer

The Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will hold their annual meetings in Birmingham, Alabama.  Both groups met in Dallas days apart last summer as well.  I don’t think there’s anything behind it, except, perhaps, they are looking for good rates on hotels and cheap prices to rent convention centers.  From the perspective of significance, there is some, I guess, in the fact that while Southern Baptists are the largest Christian denominational group in the state of Alabama, by a wide margin, they’ve not had their annual meeting in the state in more than 50 years.  In fact, the last time the SBC met in Birmingham, which was its last meeting in Alabama, it was 1941.

Ironically, Alabama ranks second in percentage of total state population belonging to a Southern Baptist church, at 30% and is the second most-shunned state in the South when it comes to the number of times the SBC has met within its borders.  Mississippi has never hosted an SBC meeting, but it ranks #1 in total percentage of its residents who are Southern Baptists, at 31%.  There are over a million Southern Baptists in Alabama, over 250,000 of them live in the greater Birmingham area.  Among metropolitan areas in the United States, only Charlotte, NC, Jackson, MS and Nashville, TN have a higher percentage of Southern Baptists in their metro population.

As a convention city, Birmingham is, well, it’s no Orlando.  It’s not Phoenix, either.  Perhaps one of the reasons it’s not been a recent host of the SBC has to do with that.  It has a relatively small convention center, which hasn’t been an issue for Southern Baptists in recent years, with just one hotel within walking distance.  A perfect storm of issues has come together to create potential for making getting to and from the meetings a struggle.  The main interstate highway through the city will be shut down for construction.  Birmingham is not normally a city with major traffic jams, but I-20/59 through the heart of town carries thousands of cars of travelers just passing through and this kind of shutdown can back traffic up there for miles.  Issues within the hotel connected to the convention center have left it without half of its rooms available for rent.  So a good number of Southern Baptists will be driving to and from a convention center by alternative routes.  The vast majority of Birmingham’s hotel rooms are off the interstate that is closed, at both the eastern and western end of the city.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the splinter group resulting from the effort by conservatives to gain control of the SBC’s trustee boards and committees, is also meeting in Birmingham about a week after the SBC has departed.  It was the same scenario in Dallas last year.  No one got hurt, I don’t believe.  I don’t think anyone had to take a doctrinal shower to wash off the effects of the previous group meeting in the same city.  The doctrinal, philosophical and church practice gap that has formed between these two groups over the past two decades has grown wide and deep, though most of CBF’s partnering churches also continue to support the SBC cooperative program to a lesser or greater degree, many of them tipping CBF on behalf of a handful of members.  Alabama has not been friendly territory to CBF, only 18 churches in the state are affiliated, eight of them in the Birmingham metropolitan area.

Although CBF is made up of mostly ex-SBC congregations, or in fact, about 80% of its partnering churches are still dually affiliated with the SBC, the business of the two groups will be very different.  Both groups are suffering from declining attendance, membership and the corresponding drops in revenue that accompany those kinds of statistics.  I’ve heard the financial situation at CBF described as a “crisis” by individuals who are involved and have a good grasp of what is happening.  The SBC’s venerable Cooperative Program is down, but only along the lines of the declines it has experienced in recent years, nothing drastic.  But both groups are reeling from the effects of being broadsided by social issues and internal conflicts that they seem to be slow to come to grips with, so there will be a lot of speculation going on and many eyes focused on Birmingham just to see how the leadership handles the problems.

Southern Baptists have been beset by a stubbornly declining membership for almost a decade now, one that has only become worse as time passes on in spite of best efforts to arrest it.  It’s leadership, a “conservative resurgence” that once claimed the SBC would be on the road to decline if moderate Baptists continued to allow creeping liberalism to run things, is at a complete loss as to what is causing it and even more ham fisted when attempting to find ways to deal with it.  The convention was still growing when conservatives took control, within just a few years of securing complete control of all the boards and agencies, membership flatlined and then started its downward trek.  More than a million members have been subtracted from the roll in a decade.

More recently, a clergy abuse scandal that has been going on for years came to the surface.  Not only did the SBC find that several hundred pastors and church leaders were involved, but it reached into the administration of two of its seminaries.  One of them, Southwestern in Ft. Worth, is also reeling from financial scandal caused by lack of full accountability.  It’s hard to use lofty spiritual language and talk about ministry and missions when those things are on the business agenda.

CBF has had its own issues.  Controversy over a hiring policy that did not allow for the inclusion of gays, lesbians or transgendered persons erupted.  A new policy was included in the “Illumination Project” allowing for the inclusion of LGBTQ persons as employees, but not as missions appointees.  More controversy followed, since the report did not require adoption at an annual meeting.  There’s been little to no discussion, and no formal vote taken at a general assembly.

So did CBF just accept this, or have there been problems?  Reports are that the contributions to CBF’s general fund are down considerably this year.  Is there speculation that this might be the result of this annual research done last year or not?  Hard to say, but I bet that it has something to do with it, even though CBF leadership has become expert at couching disaster in pleasant terms.

Another group of Baptists lives in Birmingham.  These folks, mostly people of color, for the most part do not belong to the churches that either send messengers to the SBC or send members to the general assembly.  They worship at places like the 16th Street Baptist Church, still there, renovated and bearing no scars from the explosions on those mornings long ago that caught four young girls heading to a Sunday School class by surprise.  That these Baptists are, for the most part, not connected to those who will come to their city by the thousands this summer, is a testimony to racially fragmented Christianity.  I had hoped, by this time in my life, that Christians would be more united around Christ than we are, but clearly we are not and won’t be for a while yet.  Race, cultural boundaries, prejudice, yes all things that are products of individual selfishness still separate the church.  So the biggest news out of Birmingham for both groups who meet there this summer will be decline in influence, service and evangelism.








Leaving a Denomination: Reflections of a Former Southern Baptist

“Yeah, It’s Worth It” – Why I Stick with the SBC

The article linked above, on SBC Voices, started me thinking about my own denominational experience.

The church in which I grew up and where I was led to a saving knowledge of Jesus was a small, SBC congregation in a small town in Arizona.  Most of the members were transplanted Southerners who moved out west because their jobs brought them there.  My earliest recollections of church are there and though I went away to college after high school graduation, I didn’t join a church there until halfway through my sophomore year.  I earned my B.A. from the college related to the Baptist state convention where I grew up and my initial graduate degree from Southwestern.  For all but a few years of my career, at least until recently, I worked for either an SBC church, or an entity or institution related to one.

That changed in 2010.  An opportunity to take an administrative leadership position in an institution owned by another denomination in another state presented itself and by the objective and prayerful manner in which I have always made these kind of decisions, determined that it was a ministry calling from God.  So we moved from Texas to Pennsylvania.  There was no requirement placed on the position I accepted to have my church membership in the same denomination, nor in the institution’s sponsoring church.  We also discovered, after moving there, that the county in which we lived had just one Southern Baptist church and it was not located in a place that was practical for us to attend, though we did the first Sunday we were there, out of habit, mostly.  We always give our church membership prayerful consideration as well.  Our new community had several non-denominational churches along with several churches affiliated with the denomination of the school I now served.  After perhaps two or three months of “visiting around,” we settled on a small church affiliated with the same denomination as our school.

Denominational loyalty runs deep, so leaving to join a church of another denomination wasn’t an easy decision.  Doctrinally, the church and denomination we joined were almost identical to Southern Baptists.  In fact, going through their extensive statement of faith, I found the only differences were in the terms used to express beliefs and the way their doctrine was organized.  Other than being just a shade more on the Calvinist side, there weren’t many differences.  But if you’re raised in a Southern Baptist church, and then go to a Southern Baptist college and then to one of the six seminaries, you’ve had a lot of instruction in the kinds of things that build and support denominational loyalty.

When I share this testimony with friends, the most common question that comes up is “Why would you do this after all of this time?  There are several answers to that question.

One reason was that the SBC congregation in our county would not have been a fit for us.  When my wife and I join a church, we consider what it is that we have to offer and how we can be involved and use our spiritual gifts in the church’s ministry life.  We attributed the lack of a warm welcome, which happened on both occasions we visited, to their geographic location.  But there wasn’t much else going on either and among the members, about 20 people mostly in their 70’s and 80’s, not much interest in having anything going on.  They were the remnant of a long conflict between a pastor and the deacons.  But there were other reasons.

Over the past decade or so, there are things that have developed in the SBC that are being expressed in local churches as well that I do not consider positive representations of a Christian denomination.  There’s an arrogance related to certainty on doctrinal correctness that isn’t attractive and doesn’t come across well.  Not at all well.  When I was a kid I remember a couple of my Sunday School teachers, great ladies who were solidly committed and meant well even if they didn’t know better, telling me that Baptists were the Christians who were closest to the truth and to the heart of God “because we believe the Bahble (imagine someone from Mississippi saying that) and other churches don’t.”  Yes, and that was the final word.

That was not what I heard at college, or at Southwestern.  With a minor in Biblical studies at college, and 68 hours of master’s level credit for a degree in Christian education that included a healthy dose of theology courses, I never had a single professor at either school deny that the Bible was the inerrant, infallible written word of God.  Not one.  But I also never had a professor who drew conclusions for his students and left the impression that his view was the final word.  I was never taught to doubt the veracity of the word itself, but I was taught that interpretations, even well informed, heavily studied interpretations that include a healthy understanding of the original language, are not infallible and that there are many places in scripture where there is plenty of variety when it comes to interpretation.  I don’t hear much of that anymore.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully even as I have been fully known.  

We do not know it all and in this life we never will.  There’s a growing insistence on drawing tighter lines around secondary and tertiary doctrinal beliefs and requiring individuals who work at the denominational level, and missionaries who serve in the field, to accept them if they want to keep their job and their ministry.  It’s not been completely codified in the doctrinal statement upon which the denomination has agreed as a basis for ministry cooperation but it has been enforced through actions of trustee boards and through the leadership selection process of committees and boards.

The denomination to which the church we joined belonged resembled the SBC when I was growing up in that the willingness to cooperate in ministry far exceeded the importance of secondary and tertiary doctrinal differences.  It was a denomination built around support for international missions and it supported a worldwide missionary force larger than the SBC’s IMB.  There are fewer than half a million members in the denomination’s North American churches.  The whole denomination functions as an international body centered around its missionary enterprise so cooperating to carry out that ministry is more important than any other consideration.  I would venture to speculate that if the SBC ever became that invested in international missions, to the point where the work done domestically was all focused on providing resources for missions, the doctrinal bickering and jockeying for power would cease.

We did not leave the SBC specifically because of current issues which are the result of too much of an emphasis on who runs the show, who gets the reins of power and who gets the sugar plum denominational posts, and the issues that have cropped up because of the way things have been done in that regard.  Circumstances led us to consider a ministry calling in a place that needed our spiritual gifts and it happened to be in an educational institution that belonged to another denomination.  But our openness to joining a church of another denomination certainly took into consideration our experience in “SBC life” and the impressions which it left behind.  I’ll admit to being tired of the nit picking and fussing, arguments and denominational politics that accompanies it.

People are people.  Christians are sinners forgiven by God who will never achieve perfection in this life.  The church we joined had many of the same problems every church we’ve ever belonged to has had.  The denomination, in spite of a much greater focus on international missions than the SBC, still has problems with influence peddlers and power-seekers and attempts to build personal kingdoms, though those are usually squelched pretty quickly because the work requires a genuine commitment and real skill.  But the church of Jesus Christ exists in many different forms and it is doing ministry in many different ways.  Clearly, even Christians who don’t conform to the cultural or social restrictions of Southern Baptists are being blessed by the Holy Spirit in their work.  And that was something that we needed to experience.

This is long.  Part 2 is coming soon.





Evolving in Monkey Town

In case you did not recognize it, that was the original title of Rachel Held Evans’ first book, more recently known as Faith Unravelled.  I read it.  If you think that picking up a book and reading it automatically means you’ve identified with all of its themes and ideas, then you need to stop here.  No need to read further.  You won’t get anything out of this.

The book resonated with me, not because I could check the box of agreeing with every idea before moving on but because what she describes as the “evolution” of her Christian faith is an experience that is common to most people who were raised in a church and a Christian faith that was handed down to them by their parents and lived out mostly in the context of a local church.  Though Evans was raised in a Fundamentalist church (capital F to distinguish a particular brand of Protestant, Evangelical, American Christianity) and her experience is unique to that culture, I would imagine that the curiosity, the questions about the assurance of the correctness of the official doctrine, the preaching and teaching, the rituals (yes Fundamentalists and Evangelicals are as ritualistic as the Catholic or Orthodox churches, though they don’t recognize it in themselves) and the expectation that children simply accept what it taught without question are common to children raised in churches of all faiths.

The Christian background I share is similar to Evans’, though not exactly the same.  I was raised in a Southern Baptist church, outside the deep south but full of members who moved to Arizona from Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina.  The local job market, which included a nearby military base that was the home of several operations once based in Georgia and North Carolina, an electrical contractor based in Mississippi, a natural gas compressor plant belonging to a company based in Texas assured a steady stream of members for a congregation of 120, once they found out that the “First Baptist Church” in town was affiliated with–g*a*s*p–the Yankee Baptists.  My parents were from West Virginia, my Dad raised in a Disciples of Christ congregation and my Mom a Pentecostal Holiness church but after their own period of drifting, they “got right” in a small Christian and Missionary Alliance church and then, not finding one of those when they moved to small town Arizona, got very comfortable among the Southern Baptists of similar background, theology and culture.

I was blessed to have Sunday School teachers who were spiritually gifted and strong students of the Bible.  They probably never realized that it was their teaching which actually raised the questions I had about Christian faith from what I would say was a relatively early age, since I was in Sunday School and church every week for as long as I could remember.  Only one of them had graduated from college, two of them never finished high school but in addition to being spiritually gifted teachers, they realized their responsibility and did a lot of outside reading and study.  When I was in middle school, my Sunday School teacher couldn’t get through a lesson without quoting Herschel Hobbs.  She had all his books.  I also frequently heard names like R. G. Lee and A. T. Robertson.  There were two developments in my life that came from this early church experience.  One was that I knew a lot of answers to a lot of questions.  The other was that there were some questions that weren’t going to be answered in church or in Sunday School with anything except “The Bible says…” without a scripture reference or “Because we’re Baptists.”

I suspect that’s been a similar experience for millions of kids raised in church in this country.  Evans’ book resonated with me because she had a similar experience.  Her experience led to a unique place for her, as did mine.  But there was much to be gained from reading her words and the experience she shared.  The Fundamentalists among whom Evans grew up are perhaps the most staunchly insistent of all Christians that their way is right and there is no other way.  But in spite of that, it seems that many of those who are raised in their churches as children don’t see it that way, don’t accept everything at face value and wind up leaving, some for other churches, most just leave and stop attending.

I never left the church.  I realized, after four years at a Baptist college, a minor in Biblical studies, friendships and relationships with others who were questioning and having doubts like I was, that there is an important element missing in most of what I’d been taught and consequently missing in those expressions of Evangelical Christian faith that major heavily on “right doctrine.”  It’s the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit.  “We impart this in words not taught by human wisdom, but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.”  

It took seeing the spirit work in people’s lives to realize that it is the most necessary element in interpreting scripture and indeed, in having a relationship with God that starts and sustains the process of salvation of the soul from sin.  “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”  That’s in John’s epistle, 4:2.  I studied the Bible and had my doctrinal ducks in a row long before I had an encounter with the Holy Spirit and that changed everything.  And a lot of what I see proclaimed as “right doctrine” leaves this important aspect out, or denies that some expressions of it are part of the experience.  That leaves them with nothing to preach except condemnation.

Rachel Held Evans died this week, unexpectedly and from a medical perspective, tragically.  God does not give any human being the privilege of knowing the eternal destiny of any other human being.  I never met her, except through the words she penned and spoke.  From that, I can easily discern her confession that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, not just empty words but supported by actions.  Did she have all of her doctrinal ducks lined up?  No, but neither do her critics who are maligning her and it is much more difficult to detect the Spirit of God in their words and deeds than it is in hers.  She is “wrong” in the eyes of a particular interpretation of Christianity but affirmed by many others.  We will not get through heaven’s gates riding “right doctrine.” I don’t see her critics applying the scriptural truth of I John 4:2, nor practicing the scriptural truth of Ephesians 4:29.

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.